A bit of wisdom that really opened up gm'ing for me

edited March 2012 in Play Advice
I used to suck at gm'ing, and in many ways I still do, but I'm getting better. I was thinking about this today, and recalled one particular interaction I had with a friend and fellow gamer (and pretty good GM) at ACNW. She's also a writer.

I said that I struggled with conflict. This statement took as a given that conflict is the heart of story, so it seemed important. She said she wasn't surprised, since she knows me pretty well, knows that a lot of my real life has been about conflict avoidance (in the past) and conflict management (now) and knew that my typical approach in real life is to find common ground and attempt compassion and empathy with those I'm in conflict with.

Those are valuable things, even in RPGs, but mostly OOC. But in-game...not so much.

So we talk a bit about that, and then she says "what I do with my characters is find out what they want, and them keep them from getting it".

Little lights exploded in my head.

Oh.

Since then, which was only November of last year, I feel like I have leveled up a bit as far as gm'ing goes.

Of course, this presumes a certain sort of game, one where that internal tension of not getting what your character wants is enjoyable and what the player is seeking. Many games aren't like that. It's the sort of game I personally like a lot though.

I don't know if I'm looking for reactions to the above, here, or if I'm looking for others to share their own aha! moments. Either, I guess, would be fine.

Comments

  • I'd re-phrase that a touch for my own habits.

    I find out what the players/characters want and put things in the way between them and it. If they do get it, their problems are often just beginning.
  • Malcolm,


    So, there's both a light and a dark side to "keep characters from getting what they want." It sounds like you've already found and are playing within the light side: "I should create meaningful challenges that stand between characters and goals." The dark side is when that advice gets interpreted as "I should prevent the characters and the players from achieving their goals."

    Apocalypse World offers a piece of wisdom that compliments your exciting new wisdom, and helps you avoid "the dark side."
    The worst way there is to make a character’s life more interesting is to take away the things that made the character cool to begin with. The gunlugger’s guns, but
    also the gunlugger’s collection of ancient photographs - what makes the character match our expectations and
    also what makes the character rise above them. Don’t
    take those away.

    The other worst way is to deny the character success when the character’s fought for it and won it. Always give the characters what they work for! No, the way to make a character’s success interesting is to make it consequential.
    Reconciling those pieces of wisdom: Create meaningful challenges that characters must overcome in order to get what they want, and let their actions have consequence.
  • I would also say that the vast majority of "story games" or "indie games" are based on this principle in one way or another.
  • Oooh, well said, Joe.
  • Vincent and others have mined this topic in some interesting ways.
    Paul Czege helped to kick off the discussion a few years ago with the idea that if players create and resolve their own problems ("create" in a mechanical sense, here) then it's, well, boring.

    Vincent, I think, added on the idea that play must avoid a unity of interests between the GM and the other players for conflicts to remain compelling. There are many approaches to this issue:

    1- you could say that the GM is a fan of the players but is bound by certain rules to make their choices (good and bad) matter, insofar as mistakes and bad judgment calls will come back to bite them. but you just want to see how it all hashes out; you don't have it in for them!

    2- you could say that the GM is trying to kill the players; that's her job. this requires, in turn, a lot more careful balancing and tweaking of GM power so that, like it says in AW, "why don't i just say there's a cave-in, and you all take 10-harm?"

    3- you could make the players' decisions not really matter at all. whenever they threaten to kill the dragon or find the chalice too soon (in your aesthetic judgment), you just say "nah, sorry. you don't do that. wouldn't happen." in this case, you have a sort of hybrid approach, compared to the others: you aren't exactly the PCs' opponent, but you aren't really there to just see how it all turns out, either.
    it's just the reverse, actually - they're here to see the awesome prep you've put together.
    and yet, why does this approach seem to at least sort of work? it's certainly endured for 20+ years. i think it's because it does, still, maintain a disunity of interests among all participants - - the players are Chaos, always going the wrong way and killing the innkeeper and burning shit for no reason, while the GM is Order, nudging or slapping the PCs down the right corridor and making sure they get a chance to see all the cool content you made. this tension - between players' search for freedom and the GM's search for creative fulfillment - can keep groups going for a long time, provided the players don't find it annoying.

    i do find it annoying, intensely so, which is why i prefer methods 1 and 2 FARRRR more than 3, haha
    yes, these approaches are roughly analogous to different creative agendas. no, it's not a sharp 1:1 relationship.
  • Posted By: JuddI'd re-phrase that a touch for my own habits.

    I find out what the players/characters want and put things in the way between them and it. If they do get it, their problems are often just beginning.
    It's an iterative cycle, to be sure. Challenge, struggle, eventual resolution, BUT, I think, best when via all that, a new want emerges. I'm hearing Hegel in my head. ;)
  • edited March 2012
    Macolm, you and I probably learned this at exactly the same time. You know it's true when someone breaks it down for you simply and it's like a bomb went off. I had to have this pointed out to me after a particularly lame game of Polaris. Luckily, Ben Robbins keeps repeating it over and over:

    Find out what the protagonist wants, then attach a price tag to it.

    Antagonism 101

    The hardest part is listening first.
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxIt's an iterative cycle, to be sure. Challenge, struggle, eventual resolution, BUT, I think, best when via all that, a new want emerges. I'm hearing Hegel in my head. ;)
    We are in agreement!

    Absolutely. In Burning Wheel that is when we re-write Beliefs.
  • edited March 2012
    Posted By: McdaldnoMalcolm,


    So, there's both a light and a dark side to "keep characters from getting what they want." It sounds like you've already found and are playing within the light side: "I should create meaningful challenges that stand between characters and goals." The dark side is when that advice gets interpreted as "I should prevent the characters and the players from achieving their goals."

    Apocalypse World offers a piece of wisdom that compliments your exciting new wisdom, and helps you avoid "the dark side."

    The worst way there is to make a character’s life more interesting is to take away the things that made the character cool to begin with. The gunlugger’s guns, but
    also the gunlugger’s collection of ancient photographs - what makes the character match our expectations and
    also what makes the character rise above them. Don’t
    take those away.

    The other worst way is to deny the character success when the character’s fought for it and won it. Always give the characters what they work for! No, the way to make a character’s success interesting is to make itconsequential.
    Reconciling those pieces of wisdom: Create meaningful challenges that characters must overcome in order to get what they want, and let their actions have consequence.

    Heh. It is "exciting new wisdom" to me, if only because it brought something I was aware of intuitively to the surface. Saying it out loud, it seems pretty obvious, I'll grant. :)

    That being said, this quoted stuff from AW seems right on point; I want to stress that the original advice was embedded in the notion that this is a story, implying that eventually, there would be _some_ sort of resolution.

    I take a tiny bit of issue with "create meaningful challenges" but it's a matter of focus, truly. I would rephrase that as create a situation where the character's innate needs are stressed, endangered, or questioned. Then they can do what they will do, which may mean changing the situation, or changing themselves, or even just living in the tension and conflict for a while. I hope that made sense.
  • Posted By: MathalusI had to have this pointed out to me after a particularly lame game of Polaris. Luckily, Ben Robbins keeps repeating it over and over:
    Find out what the protagonist wants, then attach a price tag to it.
    Morgan, this expresses exactly how Polaris has fallen flat for me in the past. The trick seems to be a matter of trying to nudge people into achieving their ends via means that require Experience Tests. The loyal friend advocates murdering a rival instead of further negotiations, or the desperate castellan starts looking for demonic magic to end the siege, even though you told him not to. Et cetera. I think next time I play I'm gonna have to use NPCs a lot more to "corner" the Heart and see what s/he does to get out of it :)

    Dave Berg, if you're out there: Remember that game of Polaris we played at Camp Nerdly, where we reskinned it with Dwarf Fortress? It was fun, but it felt "off" to me. What are your thoughts?
  • Something i didn't know about Polaris until recently is you can control the protagonist in a conflict - "yes, but only if you use demonic magic to do it", for example.
    Another way Polaris can fall flat is if the protag succumbs to easily.
  • edited March 2012
  • Posted By: Zak SCompare and contrast:

    http://jrients.blogspot.com/2006/09/how-to-awesome-up-your-players.html

    (bullet point 2)
    As an appendix here is my old comparison of Jeff's post and the AW text.
  • Posted By: malcolmpdxI said that I struggled with conflict. This statement took as a given that conflict is the heart of story, so it seemed important. She said she wasn't surprised, since she knows me pretty well, knows that a lot of my real life has been about conflict avoidance (in the past) and conflict management (now) and knew that my typical approach in real life is to find common ground and attempt compassion and empathy with those I'm in conflict with.

    Those are valuable things, even in RPGs, but mostly OOC. But in-game...not so much.
    Conflict is the heart of story, often, yes. And your particular experiences with conflicts; avoiding them, managing them, and going for empathy and common ground ...
    - are potentially of great value in conflict resolution; it enables you as a leader of games to introduce alternative solutions to conflicts, and to lead players through the pros and cons of these (more challenging) solutions. There is a knack to it, and I'm sure you will get it somewhere along the path you are following now, and when you do; JOY TO YOUR PLAYERS!!!

    Thanks for sharing your particular story! Have a nice day!
  • Conflict is one way of telling a story but it's not the only way. Sometimes players just want to act as their character in a dramatic scene. It's also not always easy to find the right conflict for players. There are things they don't want to be challenged on, and other things they don't care about. Some players you have to ease into conflict with a long run up, introducing it as investigation or with a slow interpersonal build up. Some games challenge you on everything you do, such as Dresden Files and it's FATE point economy. Some people love that, I found it tiresome that I needed to complicate every conflict to get FATE points to be able to act. Some games are about fighting but not really about conflict. In AD&D you can kill everything and take it's treasure with no real hint of conflict. I think it's very much part of the GM skill to determine what each player wants in the current game and to give it to them, how much to stay in their comfort zone, and how much to challenge them. Sometimes you say yes and don't roll the dice.
  • I level up as game master when I read the GM tips from Lady Blackbird and I learned to stop talking and started asking questions. I think GMs should stop talking so much and start listening more.
  • Posted By: Alejandro EtsuI think GMs should stop talking so much and start listening more.
    Which GMs are those?
  • Posted By: GB StevePosted By: Alejandro EtsuI think GMs should stop talking so much and start listening more.
    Which GMs are those?
    The GMs who talk too much and don't listen.
  • Posted By: GB SteveConflict is one way of telling a story but it's not the only way. Sometimes players just want to act as their character in a dramatic scene. It's also not always easy to find the right conflict for players. There are things they don't want to be challenged on, and other things they don't care about. Some players you have to ease into conflict with a long run up, introducing it as investigation or with a slow interpersonal build up. Some games challenge you on everything you do, such as Dresden Files and it's FATE point economy. Some people love that, I found it tiresome that I needed to complicate every conflict to get FATE points to be able to act. Some games are about fighting but not really about conflict. In AD&D you can kill everything and take it's treasure with no real hint of conflict. I think it's very much part of the GM skill to determine what each player wants in the current game and to give it to them, how much to stay in their comfort zone, and how much to challenge them. Sometimes you say yes and don't roll the dice.
    Of course. There are always other ways to play, and I wasn't making a value judgement on them, other than saying that I tend to like games that are in a specific style, and one that has conflict pretty centrally located. Luckily for me, the people I play with agree.

    I'm thinking the central thing here is (and in some recent discussions on this site regarding GM "rules" ) is what tools and techniques or even habits of mind are useful in running a game where people can have fun, in the way that they want to have fun, possibly even in different ways, at the same time.

    This can be hard. One person wants to blow off some steam and have lots of action which is not terribly fraught with consequences. Another wants to dig really deeply into the motivations and mindset of their character. A third wants to have some time in the spotlight to "act". A fourth just wants to have another beer and hang out with their friends. I've been all these folks, at one point or another, and sometimes even in the same game.

    It seems to me that trying to accommodate all these players at once is admirable, but possibly a fools errand. The factor that distinguishes here is if one players fun is dependent or impacted by another's. It's quite possible to have a very well formed group that can make space for everyone's fun, but it's been rare in my experience.

    Now, I mostly play these days at cons, which makes the resolution easier, in the sense that if I'm careful, I'll get people signed up who want the same thing, more or less, that I do. That has its own set of challenges, like how to write a short game description that signals to the right sort of players for the game.

    I'm not sure if approaching this from the top down or from the bottom up is more efficacious. Top down would be trying to limit the sort of game from the outset, and be pretty strict about what the game is about. That has dangers, of course. But so does making things wide open, and trying to figure it out on the fly, which I'll call a bottom up approach.

    So far, for a variety of reasons, I have tended towards top down.
  • Posted By: Judd
    I find out what the players/characters want and put things in the way between them and it. If they do get it, their problems are often just beginning.
    I think one real big problem with that concept is that a lot of players just do not know what they want, other than be entertained.
    For me the best bit of of wisdom I have gained is to actually make players want things.
  • Posted By: thadrineI think one real big problem with that concept is that a lot of players just do not know what they want, other than be entertained.
    This is true on so many levels.

    I think I'd been playing for ten years (in the same group, largely with the same people!) before I finally started to figure out just what it was I wanted to get out of a game. And maybe another year or two before I could really articulate it to other people.

    But part of that might be because I was largely happy with those ten years of gaming, and happy people have no reason to be introspective. The old "if it ain't broke" rule applies, and you just go on doing what you're doing, without really thinking about whether it could be even better. What changed after those ten years was that our group's gaming time got more limited by work and family obligations, and suddenly the fun-to-time-invested ratio became much more important, and we all got more interested in working out ways we could extract the most out of the 3-4 hours we could get together for. And man, it was a watershed moment for our games; now we talk about what we're going to play, establish common ground on how the game will work and when it will be scheduled and what it will be about, we talk about whether we're getting what we want out of the PC-to-PC interactions, we evaluate whether we like how a game is going every few weeks, and all in all, I wish I'd started gaming with that mindset.

    Then again, when we started, I wouldn't have had the experience and information to properly evaluate what I wanted out of a game, so it probably wouldn't have worked out so well. That's some catch, that catch 22.
  • Posted By: Zac in Virginia1- you could say that the GM is a fan of the players but is bound by certain rules to make their choices (good and bad) matter, insofar as mistakes and bad judgment calls will come back to bite them. but you just want to see how it all hashes out; you don't have it in for them!

    2- you could say that the GM is trying to kill the players; that's her job. this requires, in turn, a lot more careful balancing and tweaking of GM power so that, like it says in AW, "why don't i just say there's a cave-in, and you all take 10-harm?"
    I'm also a fan of these two, Zac. I find they work best when the rules of the game limit what I can do. I could try to kill all the players, but the DMG says I can only make encounters of a certain difficulty with monsters up to a certain level, so no matter how hard I try, they'll be able to survive. I could be a fan of the players, but I can only give them experience and rewards if they go through encounters and face adversity.

    I love having my hands tied, because then I can play hard and not worry too much about needing to pull punches, or if I'm being too gentle.
  • Posted By: Jogesh EZI love having my hands tied, because then I can play hard and not worry too much about needing to pull punches, or if I'm being too gentle.
    I know! It is why I love something like Apocalypse World
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